Northwest Mechanical does radiant
We caught up to Buzz Burgett in his office at Northwest Mechanical in Seattle. He only had a few minutes for initial introductions because he was on his way off for a business trip. However, with his blessing, Reeves Journal, accompanied by Paul Pollets, founder and president of Advanced Radiant Technology and RJ editorial advisory board member, took a tour of a couple of the company’s tasty radiant heating projects in the Seattle area. After our visit, we spoke with Buzz about Northwest Mechanical, how the Seattle market is growing and the dearth of qualified labor in the area.
The first project we visited is the kind of place that makes some people wish they hadn’t ditched all those classes in school. It’s a 10,000 square foot Spanish-style mansion in the City’s tony Capitol Hill neighborhood. Originally built in the 1920s, the home is being virtually gutted and renovated with radiant heat and amenities like a computerized golf driving range in the basement, a newer, bigger wine cellar and a new, 5,000 square-foot two story addition featuring garage space and an apartment or office space upstairs.
The second is an apartment building under construction near Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters. It will provide dormitory-style living for the influx of technology workers to take a shower and sleep when they’re not immersed in the amenities provided for them on campus by the companies they work for or out on the town spending some of those big tech salaries.
A little background
Burgett says Northwest Mechanical has been operating for more than 35 years. It was originally started by one of his colleagues, Jay Zager, who is now the owner of Thermal Products, Inc., a distributor of hydronic heating and solar thermal products in Seattle. Burgett went to work at Northwest Mechanical in 1986 and bought the company in 1994.
Before going to work at Northwest, Burgett and his brother ran a solar heating business from 1979 until 1985: “I had a back injury in January of ‘86, and it took me 11 months to recuperate. And Jay was kind enough to give me a job come November. And so I came in as a salesperson for their small company. I developed the radiant heating market starting in around 1987 when we started working on radiant heating as a market that really was not developed at that point in Seattle.”
Now the company employs about 25 people, with 14 in the field. The company’s main product lines include Grundfos, Viessmann, Uponor, Webstone, TACO, Caleffi and Mitsubishi. Northwest sees about 75% of its business from service and the rest is a healthy mix of new construction, remodel, and replacement. Toss in some geothermal expertise and you have a pretty well-rounded company.
Burgett says Northwest runs two three-man installation teams and the rest of the techs have apprentices riding with them on all calls. It’s a pretty common situation in Washington for the journeyman/apprentice combination to run calls.
“Given the fact the lack of trained people is so off the charts, the only real true way to have people working in our organization trained the way we want them to be trained is to start them out as an apprentice and have them go through a four-year apprenticeship program,” he says.
With all the fast residential and commercial growth in Seattle, coupled with a severe qualified labor shortage and the aging and retirement of the older, experienced workers, is it possible Seattle could be a harbinger of things to come for the industry at large? If so, contractors throughout the West ought to be losing sleep over the issue.
“Right. It’s a huge issue,” Burgett says. “And, unfortunately, we don’t hear a lot of discussion about training people for the trades. We hear discussion about sending kids to college and the tech industry and training for desk jobs and white collar jobs. There is, well, not enough trained people to go around to handle the market. We’re stretched as thin as we can get. Our competitors that I keep tabs on are stretched as thin as they can get to try to keep up with the marketplace.”
He says there’s probably not going to be an easing of the labor market any time soon. Developers Burgett has spoken to tell him some bank financing is tightening up: “The word on the street, in terms of development and commercial development, is if the project has not already started, then it’s going to be hard to get it off the ground in the next two years,” he says.
Pulling up to the first project it wasn’t too much of a stretch of the imagination to envision an old-timey society couple jumping into a big, chauffeur-driven custom-bodied Duesenberg to be whisked away for an evening of dining, the theater and perhaps late cocktails.
But that’s not the Seattle demographic these days. Many of today’s Seattleites are generally younger employees who have brought their tech degrees to companies like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and an impressive roster of others in the field. And those newly-minted millionaires and their higher-than-average income colleagues, frankly, dig the radiant heat.
“It’s one of those things that once you experience it, it’s something you want to have in your home,” Burgett said. “With radiant heating in bathrooms, which has become very prevalent with NuHeat. [Electric radiant floor heating. — Ed.] Most everybody has had a chance to put their bare toes on it. And so we’re seeing people who have a budget that will support the additional cost of a radiant heating system and that it typically does cost less to operate once you have it installed, and it provides a higher level of comfort. So it’s kind of a no-brainer for a lot of people we see mostly in the new construction or the retrofits. We’re seeing a lot of homes that are being bought inner-city and in prime neighborhoods where they’re doing gut remodels. And they might retrofit Uponor’s Joist Trak heat transfer panels to create radiant heating zones. And it’s going towards comfort, I think. That and the ability to pay for it are the driving forces.”
This project is one of the “Millionaire Street” gut-and-remodel kind of jobs. Uponor’s Quick Trak is being installed in the main living area and kitchen, all piped to the existing cast iron radiators in portion of the house that isn’t undergoing complete renovation.
“We’re also doing the Mitsubishi ductless split heat pumps to provide air conditioning for all the bedrooms upstairs. And so we have a complete Mitsubishi ductless system going in,” he says, noting the utility room of this house is a work of art in itself, featuring the whole roster of Northwest’s product lines.
The apartment building project called 162 Ten NW 80th St. is going up for tech employees to have a 200-square foot place to crash when they’re not on their work campuses. The neighborhood is festooned with many cube-shaped buildings with pasted-on facades. Additionally, each façade is designed to be reminiscent of a popular style and every Tudor-Spanish-Victorian-Santa Fe-Colonial-Bauhaus-styled one is painted in pretty pastel hues that would make some observers nostalgic for the 1980s.
The questionable architectural tastes of the neighboring buildings aside, these apartments boast serious technology, many of them being LEED-certified. In particular, this new, five-story apartment building will be no exception – located within blocks of Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters and set for completion next year — each apartment will be hydronically heated, including the common kitchen area to be shared by the approximately 25 residents on each floor.
“The new lifestyle is you get up and you go to work and have breakfast. Going to work is catching either a bus that’s provided by your company or you ride public transportation or you walk or take your bicycle, because the locations of these types of apartments are centrally located for transportation,” Burgett says. “You can even have lunch and dinner at work. But then when they come home, they basically typically go out. Again, only 30% of the people that live there own a car. The other 70% use public transportation or ride a bike. And so these apartments are small, but they have a bathroom with a shower.”
With a year to go on the project, Burgett reports things are going along according to plan: “We’ve got our schedules all set up for when we’re going be putting in the boiler rooms, the radiant floor, and then the solar domestic hot water system on the roof. You know, it’s going to be LEED Platinum Plus — that’s all that this one developer builds are these LEED Platinum Plus projects.”
The mechanical room will feature a quartet of Viessmann wall-hung, condensing Vitodens boilers: “And we’ll have six 79-gallon dual coil stainless Viessmann Vitocell tanks. Because of the small closets that we had to deal with, the boiler rooms and the water heater rooms are all separate and stacked on top of each other. So we have two boilers on the second floor, three tanks on the third floor, two boilers on the fourth floor, and three tanks on the fifth floor. So it’s an interesting piping arrangement with our mixing valves and our mixing stations on all four floors to feed the radiant floor for the floors, which will be Viessmann mixing stations and then Uponor tubing and Viessmann evacuated tube collectors on the roof.”
In a market in which the available jobs far outstrip the number of qualified workers, it’s not surprising the issue weighs heavily on Burgett’s mind, as it should on all of our Western contractors.
“I was just talking to one of my senior techs yesterday about this, and he was saying, ‘Boy, in 20 years, we’re going to be in big trouble because everybody who’s in it now is going to be retired and there’s going to be nobody to replace us’. So in terms of speaking to today’s youth, I think that kids in high school who are not college-bound should go into the trades. There are good trade schools. It’s an investment in their future and there’s good money to be made at it.”
Obviously the entry-level salary isn’t going to be anything like that pulled down by a super college kid programmer. But the financial playing field can get level pretty quickly for a skilled plumbing tech. And, think about it – who’s got a better chance at reaping long-term business ownership rewards, the cube-dwelling programmer whose claim to fame is an app that orders takeout food or the person who’s paid their dues in the trades and who now has other people working to put money in his or her pocket as a business owner?
“It’s a career. Especially, it’s a diverse career. If they decide to go into the servicing of equipment, they will see every type of installation that’s possible,” he says. “They’ll be able to utilize their skill, knowledge, and their brain to figure out proper solutions and make recommendations to help people keep their systems running or to improve their systems. And all these systems out there are aging.
“There’s a huge opportunity for young people in this industry. For those that are looking at hiring, I say invest in the youth and invest in an internal training program. It’s exciting, you know? We’re living in an exciting time in our industry, especially with the electronics and how that’s changed so that everything is computerized. You need training. You need schooling. And it’s an exciting time to get into it. And, you know, I don’t know what else to say. Seattle is a beautiful place. Anybody that’s looking at moving can call me up.”